How Ad Tech Can Kill Excel

Online advertising is supposed to represent a marketing revolution, giving marketers access to cutting-edge technology that can match ads to consumer through a combination of creative and innovative algorithms. So why are digital media planners still so reliant on Microsoft Excel, an outdated piece of software from the 1980s? For digital to truly develop, we need to get to a world where the planners and buyers leverage unified marketing platforms and put Excel to rest.

Advertising has evolved tremendously. The traditional media buyer’s primary tool was the phone, as they spent the day calling contacts and dictating insertion orders to make sure a campaign hit the target demographics and markets. The rise of digital brought about the media planner, and while they undoubtedly utilize email, phone and fax, they are, as one columnist put it, “spending far too much time with mind-numbingly rote tasks involving Microsoft Excel.”

In the ad platform space, our biggest competitors are not other companies, but Excel. That might sound ridiculous, but I mean it in all sincerity. Media planners work with 20 different partners or vendors on average, and that number can climb as high as 50 for larger brands juggling multiple direct buys and looking for global scale. Managing these line items is a pain, and that’s what drives  planners to Excel. 



Consider this: online platforms represent more efficient buying practices, with performance and spending tracking capabilities that render Excel obsolete. They effectively give transparency not only into the 20 partners on the spreadsheet, but hundreds of available partners in the market. Yet 90% of online advertising is still bought and sold the old way, tracked by clicking the ubiquitous green X icon and staring into the cells.

The buying space should be inverted, with 90% of digital buying coming through efficient platforms. Homepage takeover ads and other kinds of native advertising will always require a direct connection between publisher and advertiser, but it’s safe to say ad buying platforms can account for the majority of online media in the next few years, including display, video, search and social.

Like the evolution from media buyer to media planner, digital’s next phase is the age of the media trader, where the former Excel maven at the agency or brand can now monitor and optimize campaigns in real time, just as stock traders watch the numbers from their desktop Bloomberg terminal. In an ideal world, all advertisers and agencies take advantage of the efficiencies and ROI measurement capabilities of programmatic buying and serving.

So how do we get to the point where we can invert the market? The key for the ad technology space is education. Today’s beleaguered media planners don't want to be chained to their desks. Platforms and technology providers need to reach this audience and show them how technology actually makes their jobs easier, once they sit down and learn the technology.

Networks can ply media planners with basketball tickets and vacation houses, but smart technology companies have the ability to arm them with skills that will help them climb the ladder within the company. The incentive for the media planner should be the mastery of skillset that only 10% of the market currently has, and then use that knowledge of a new technology as a springboard to move away from the spreadsheet and toward a higher position.

Getting planners out of excel benefits an agency’s brand clients as well. Spreadsheets are a time suck, one that drains the enthusiasm right out of a media planner. Platforms aren’t just about creating media traders – they’re about giving agency staff more time to work directly with brands on strategy. No one joins an agency to plug data into spreadsheets for hours a day. They join because they want to think strategically and drive market strategy, and automation gives them the time necessary to devote mental energy toward these goals.

Again, the platforms aren’t necessarily competing with each other here, and it won’t really matter which platform these media traders use. The goal is to first expand the market, and then differentiate. The intuitive and easy to use buying platforms will gain advocates within agencies and brands, and will continue to grow market share by growing the market.

Programmatic is an efficient buying practice, with continued growth forecast well into the coming years. But rather than focus on defeating each other, ad technology needs to focus on defeating the outmoded technologies of yesteryear.

6 comments about "How Ad Tech Can Kill Excel".
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  1. Joseph Pych from NextMark, Inc., January 3, 2013 at 8:30 p.m.

    Great article, Eoin. The use of Excel in digital media planning is a symptom - not a cause - of the problem. The real problem is lack of standards and infrastructure. RTB has proven automation can be done with remnant inventory sold on a spot exchange. Now, it's time to take it up a notch and automate guaranteed buys so we humans can free ourselves to focus on high-value activities like strategy, ideas, deals, etc. Let the machines do the grunt work of executing the plans. We'll know we've succeeded when nobody is using Excel for creating media plans anymore. Excel is the litmus test for (lack of) automation.

  2. Jennifer Norene from Digital Marketing Coach, January 3, 2013 at 9:51 p.m.

    "Online media has always spun way beyond the majority of business's adaptation to this new way of approaching their customers. As soon as the send on digital is justified and solid for the client I can see introducing a market automation tool. But for many clients the spending control and results is much more important to what sexy tool is used to manage and produce the same.

  3. Rodney Mayers from Google, January 4, 2013 at 1:05 p.m.

    What we are battling is human behavior not Excel. Excel for all of its faults is the great equalizer. No matter what rubbish reporting you get back, you can drop it into Excel, make sense of it and defend it to your client…who by the way, also uses Excel, especially the CFO folks that keep pinging the CMOs for those Excel charts on ROI for last quarter's budgets.

    Media planning has been around long before digital and is more complex because of digital (add mobile and video and social to 2013 planning). Irrespective of the medium, the planner has to answer the most basic questions of audience coverage, audience composition, reach and frequency, etc for each medium, then match creative to each medium's peculiarities in order to achieve the marketing objectives set by the client and yes, their historical audience data probably comes in Excel (god bless the pivot table).

    When digital advertising emerged mid 90's, Excel was there. Perhaps the fact that Excel is still being used is more a statement that all of the innovation of systems and algorithms and UI's and billions spent has failed to answer the more basic needs of the media planner which is, how do I make this freaking plan work across media to meet my advertiser's marketing/sales objectives.

    Media Buying was all about the creative back in the day because buying media was less complex. Media Planning got more complex because the medium (digital) is more complex and the shift to planning dimmed the art of communicating a message to humans. Media Trading suggests all media is equal and can be measured equally which even for Newspapers (Audit Bureau of Circulation), Radio (Arbitron), TV (Nielsen) there was no common denominator. They weren't digital true but we are still inching towards standards in digital with Social, Mobile and Online Video added to the mix and a definition of audience blurred by IP addresses, mobile IDs and other numbers that don't describe people.

    Forget BIG DATA, there's a BIG PLANNING problem and the human algorithm at least has confidence in what it is putting into Excel.

    How do we get away from Excel? Change in behavior comes from confidence in the "new thing" and in the new thing meeting the broadest use case. Confidence comes from standards in measurement and reporting. The Wall Street analogy that is often used sits on top of lots of standards and a heaping dose of regulation. The emergence of something that replaces Excel therefore may be dependent on standards that bring "comparability and order to the marketplace" and a system(s) that can best answer the broader needs of the media planner.

    To a better future.

  4. Theresa M. Moore from Antellus, January 4, 2013 at 2:51 p.m.

    I don't see the need to make Excel "obsolete" since it was never designed to be a social media platform in the first place. It creates spreadsheet documents designed to aid in accounting, not for designing ad content. Most businesses use Excel for that, so criticising it as being too limited for creating ad content is a tempest in a teapot. Use some other software and leave Excel alone.

  5. Bodhi Short from Integrate, Inc, January 4, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.

    I think it’s an excellent perspective. I’ve been amazed during the last 6 months of travel and meeting with clients, how many light up with excitement when I mention how our company cuts out hours and hours of excel manipulation they do.

    I liked specifically the part about how much time and energy is wasted plugging data instead of doing what the media planner got the job for; thinking strategically and driving market strategy.

    In many Agencies, it’s common for every Friday to completely turn into a day of excel manipulation to create reporting for the Brands the Agency serves. That’s 20% of the work week down the drain on something that can be automated to take 5 minutes.

    Additionally, data on excel sheets will never be real time, especially by the time the data has been “crunched” to derive whatever important information was needed. The idea of giving the analytics to the Media buyer in as real-time an environment as a stock broker receiving updates is a noble goal. Not only does it save the Agency time, but it protects the brands and their budgets from running in ineffective areas that go unseen when data is only reviewed in a weekly or often even a 30 day look back… we have reps who analyze down to the minute on campaigns to optimize to highest degree. Hourly is good too, but once you get into daily and weekly, you miss the nuances of dead zones that drag the campaigns ROI down.

  6. Ross Bradley from Qeg Pty Ltd, January 11, 2013 at 12:06 a.m.

    Jeff Green (founder and CEO of The Trade Desk, Inc.) from within his RTBinsider article @ MediaPost today asks the question of Publishers "What's the best way to monetize ad inventory?" - and he almost begs of publishers to make peace with the fact that exchanges are here to stay-that publishers should also make peace with RTB as well.

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